Romain Bourger, Head Sommelier at The Vineyard in Stockcross and winner of Taittinger 2019 Sommelier of the Year, takes us on his wine journey and tells us what it was like to win the most prestigious award for UK sommeliers.
Do you remember the moment you realised you wanted to pursue a career in wine?
I was about 15 years old and already studying at catering school. We were learning about wine. We learnt about winemaking, vineyards, appellations and wine styles rather than service and that really sparked my interest. After graduation, I decided to enrol on a sommelier diploma.
As the newly crowned Taittinger UK Sommelier of the Year, can you tell us what it takes to be the best?
Wine competitions are no different from sport. It's all about training as much as you can to be better and better. I learnt a lot from the feedback I received, which helped me to work on my weaknesses and come back stronger every year. I dedicated a lot of time to theoretical and practical training in terms of wine tasting, service and trying to work against the clock. And, on top of that, there is always a little bit of luck on the day of the competition.
As you mentioned, it wasn’t your first time in this competition. How has your approach to competing changed over the past few years?
I don't think my approach has really changed significantly, I’ve just gained more experience. The first time you are on stage is quite stressful as it’s not just the judges to worry about but all the wine industry leaders in the audience. The tasks we had to deal with show that no matter how much you know, there is always something new you can learn. Obviously, the competition is mainly about wine and beverages, but it's also important to be up to speed with news and trends in the hospitality world. My confidence and focus grew every time I participated.
What was the most challenging task in this year’s competition for you?
The most challenging part of this year’s competition was being the last person to compete. It felt like forever waiting for my turn - the pressure really builds. I might have seemed calm up there on stage, but I was so stressed out! The hardest task for me was the food and wine pairing - not being able to choose any European wines made me feel blank. Funnily enough, it was one of the tasks I actually performed best in!
My favourite task was the bar service. I do a little work at the bar in the restaurant anyway, as it’s as important as wine service and an increasing number of people now know much more about spirits and cocktails.
How important do you think formal education, as offered by WSET, is for succeeding in the industry?
WSET courses have an amazing approach to wine and they make the world of wine easy to understand - even for people from outside the industry. It's really great that there are different levels of course suited to people's varying needs. Sommeliers who are ambitious can start at the beginning and progress right up to the Level 4 Diploma. Those in the hospitality industry who do not want to specialise in wine can just take the Level 1 Award in Wines.
In your view, are consumers becoming more informed and confident when ordering wine in a restaurant?
One of the great things in the UK is that we can access wines from most wine producing countries globally. Whether you are in a wine shop or a supermarket, there is a fantastic selection to choose from. This means that more and more of our guests know what's happening in the wine world and about different types of wine.
With the UK sommelier title under your belt, are you thinking of competing internationally?
It’s definitely something I'd like to try in the coming year and see how it goes. The Best Sommelier of Europe is on my radar. For now, I’m just going to concentrate on celebrating my victory!
Want to find out how to follow in Romain's footsteps? Check out our guide to becoming a sommelier.